When I was living in Boston in my early twenties, I thought pulled pork was created by some frat boy looking for an excuse to be disgusting. To me, it was on par with eating a Big Mac, or a cheese pizza covered in ranch dressing. My male friends would order pulled pork sandwiches from the local BBQ take-out counter on Sundays, and eat them while watching football. They were usually drunk and so it usually spilled everywhere, leaving them with sticky cheeks and greasy brown stains that snaked down the fronts of their shirts.
Ordering pulled pork from a Boston BBQ joint, come to find out, is like ordering a filet mignon from Applebee’s. At its worst, the sandwich bun is a soggy grease trap for fatty, tough chunks of pork, bound together with BBQ sauce that is thick as jelly and tooth-achingly sweet.
It wasn’t until I spent some time cooking in North Carolina, that I realized I had completely missed the boat on pulled pork. Sure, pork shoulder is a fatty piece of meat, but if trimmed well and slowly braised, the remaining fat melts out and you are left with velvety hunks of tender pork. The North Carolinians favor a vinegar base for their sauce, whereas Texans go with something a little sweeter. I’ve been tinkering with a recipe, and I think mine falls somewhere in between.
I’ve been working on this recipe over the last few brisk Sunday afternoons, while one kid is napping and the other is watching football with her dad, grandparents, cousins, and whoever else decides to stop by. The oven keeps my kitchen cozy for the entire afternoon and all I have to do is throw it in and go about the rest of my business, checking on the meat every hour or so, for about four hours total.
In the past, I may have watched the game with my family instead of working on this recipe. You, dear readers, should thank the Patriots for having such a slow (read: sucky) start to the season. Otherwise, you may not have gotten this recipe at all. If you live in the Boston area, and are as doubtful about eating pulled pork as I was, try this – I promise it will change your mind!
I like serving the shredded pork mounded on a soft roll, topped with a crunchy vinegar- or mayo-based slaw, a little extra BBQ sauce, and a pickle on the side, just like they do it in North Carolina. Now, if only I knew how to make hush puppies…
Don’t be intimidated by the long ingredient list. The hardest part is finding everything you need. Once you’ve got everything out, it’s easy to measure it and throw it into the oven.
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large red or yellow onion, diced small
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon coriander
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 12 ounces beer (a lager like Sam Adams works well)
- ½ cup ketchup
- ½ cup rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon adobo sauce from a can of chiles in adobo
- 4 to 5 pound boneless boston butt (also called picnic shoulder)
- Salt and pepper
- ½ cup unsalted chicken stock
- Rolls, cole slaw, pickles – for serving
- Take the pork out of the refrigerator about an hour before cooking (so it comes up to room temperature) and salt it liberally on all sides.
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
- Sauté the onions in the olive oil in a six quart Dutch oven over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until translucent.
- Add the spices and the beer and stir, allowing it to simmer for about three minutes to allow the alcohol to burn off.
- Add the ketchup, vinegar, sugar, mustard, adobo sauce, and chicken stock and bring to a simmer, whisking to combine.
- Add the pork, fatty side up. This allows the fat to melt into the meat as it cooks - kind of like natural basting - and makes it more flavorful. Spoon sauce liberally over the top and bring it back up to a simmer. (This step is really important. If you put the pan in the oven before bringing the sauce back up to a simmer, the liquid will never get hot enough to cook the pork properly).
- Cover the pork directly with a piece of parchment or foil and then cover with the lid. This concentrates the steam and cooks the meat more evenly.
- Place in the oven and cook for an hour and a half. Remove from the oven, flip the pork, and spoon sauce over the top again, working quickly so as not to lose too much heat. Cook for another hour and a half. Remove the lid, turn the pork again and this time return to the oven uncovered. Cook for one hour.
- Remove the pork from the braising liquid and let cool about 1o minutes. While waiting, skim most of the visible fat from the top of the braising liquid and return the pot to the stovetop, bringing the liquid to a boil over medium heat.
- Reduce the liquid until thickened, about ten minutes. Shred the pork with two forks and add it back to the sauce, tossing gently to combine. Don’t over-stir the pork or you’ll lose all the velvety chunks and it will become stringy.
- Serve immediately in rolls with slaw and pickles. You can also make this ahead of time, let cool, refrigerate, and reheat for up to three days. This recipe definitely tastes as good, if not better, after it sits. If you have any leftovers, I like to serve them in BBQ pulled pork burritos or as a filling for empanadas.